'Cogs in the colonial wheel': Why racism in Canada's police force is as old as policing

WATCH: The death of George Floyd sparked protests around the world demanding racial equality and police accountability. However, some of these peaceful protests were being met with violence from law enforcement while anti-lockdown demonstrations saw no such force.

In May 2010, Junior Manon died after being thrown onto the ground by Toronto police.

The 18-year-old was allegedly fleeing the scene after being pulled over for having an expired temporary licence plate sticker.

Officers told a public coroner’s inquest into Manon’s death in 2012 that they had never laid on top of Manon nor did they apply pressure or force to the teen’s back or chest.

But multiple witnesses told the public inquest that Toronto police officers had not only put their weight on him, but they also hit him and put their knees into his back.

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Following Manon’s death, Ontario’s chief forensic pathologist, Dr. Michael Pollanen, had ruled that the cause of death was restraint asphyxia after the chase. The mechanism of death was caused by a “reduced ability to breath” due to “added weight on the back,” according to the autopsy report prior to the inquest, according to the Canadian Press.

The officers were cleared by the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) in 2011 of wrongdoing prior to the mandatory coroner’s inquest in 2012. Jurors at that inquest ruled the death an accident — but found that officers had contributed to his death due to their actions.

Manon’s death is one incident in a history of controversial deaths and incidents of discrimination and brutality towards Black people at the hands of police in Canada.

“We know that there is a great over-representation, both of Black and Indigenous people in police use of force in Toronto and in Ontario,” said  Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga.

A 2018 report from the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) found that Black residents in Toronto are 20 times more likely to be killed by police than white people.

Black residents in Toronto only make up 8.8 per cent of the city’s population but account for 61 per cent of cases in which police used force that led to death and 70 per cent of all cases where a police shooting resulted in death.

The report also found a “lack of legal basis” for police stopping or detaining Black people to search, charge or arrest them for reasons that are “unjustified,” “unnecessary” and “inappropriate.” The commision also found a “lack of co-operation” between police and the SIU during investigations.

The history of police brutality in Canada

To understand why Black communities have been vocal about anti-Black racism within policing as an institution, it’s important to look at how policing was founded in Canada and, in turn, how this country was created, said Camisha Sibblis, an assistant professor in the school of social work at the University of Windsor whose research focuses on anti-Black racism.

Police were established in the 1830s and were largely modelled after the French and British policing systems, she said.

Both the French and British were colonizing Canada, and police were aiding in the colonization of Indigenous people.

“They were really cogs in the colonial wheel,” she said.

“They aided really largely in Canadian nation-building. They were important in developing what Canada sees as its national fabric, which is founded on whiteness.”

The practice of criminalizing Black people in particular dates back to when slavery was legal in Canada, only being officially abolished in 1834, according to Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present by Robyn Maynard, an author, activist and Vanier scholar at the University of Toronto.

When slavery was abolished, it was Canada’s institutions that took on the role of “exerting control” over Black people, she wrote.

The idea of associating Blackness with criminality and characterizing Black communities as dangerous is perpetuated by bodies like the police, she explained.

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White settlers connecting Black people with crime dates back to when slavery existed in Canada and self-liberated Black people were labelled as “thieves and criminals,” she explained. Black people existing freely in a public space were then considered to be possible “runaways.”

“Black people were brought here to be slaves. So Black people and freedom are seen as out of place here in Canada. Police see them doing anything, and that is criminalized,” said Sibblis.

Past calls for reform

Toronto’s long history with deaths and controversies involving police has also been the focus of recent and past public outcries and calls for reform within the Toronto force specifically.

The SIU, created by the Ontario government to investigate deaths, serious injury and alleged sexual assault involving police, was created in 1990 following public calls for justice after two fatal shootings of Black men in Ontario, as outlined in the book How Black and Working Class Children Are Deprived of Basic Education in Canada by the late Bairu Sium, an author and teacher from Toronto.

The first death was Lester Donaldson, a 44-year-old who was shot by police while sitting alone in his room at a Toronto rooming house in 1988. Police said they were responding to a claim that a man was holding hostages and that Donaldson lunged at them with a knife. One officer was charged with manslaughter but then acquitted by a jury in 1989.

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The Black Action Defence Committee, founded by civil rights activists in 1988, was created in response to Donaldson’s death to demand that police no longer investigate themselves and that a third party be created, as reported by University of Toronto law professor Kent Roach in his 1999 book Due Process and Victims’ Rights: The New Law and Politics of Criminal Justice.

Then, in December 1988, it was reported that 17-year-old Michael Wade Lawson was shot in the back of the head while he was driving a stolen car in Mississauga, Ont. Two police officers were charged in his death but were later acquitted in 1992.

And again in Ontario’s history, the creation of the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS) in 2006 received criticism as a controversial arm of the Toronto police that engaged in carding. Funding was cut for TAVIS in 2015, and it was officially disbanded in 2016 on the recommendations of the Toronto Police Services Board (TPSB) in its interim report, titled The Way Forward, which was centred on modernizing the force and improving neighbourhood policing.

A previous TPSB report from 2013, titled The Police and Community Engagement Review (PACER), had acknowledged that communities were feeling “frustration, anger and confusion” towards TAVIS due to “frequent stops, questioning and searches.”

The Toronto police reports to the TPSB regularly on the status of The Way Forward recommendations, said Meaghan Gray, spokesperson for the force. Gray also points to the PACER report that addresses and acknowledges police bias and the impact on Black youth in particular.

Neighbourhood policing, as outlined in The Way Forward, has been expanded and launched in a pilot project over 2018 and 2019, she said.

“The enhanced program is now being implemented permanently in all TPS divisions. Currently, more than 135 officers are deployed to over 30 neighbourhoods across the city. These officers attend a specific five-day training program,” said Gray. These officers also remain in a community for four years and aim to “work collaboratively with residents.”

Knowing rights when interacting with police

This is only a small portion of the history in one city, but the mistreatment by the police towards Black people is an ongoing concern, said Ruth Goba, executive director of the Black Legal Action Centre, a non-profit that serves low- to no-income Black Ontarians.

“There’s heightened surveillance of the Black community by the police. There is a significant risk of violence when they interact with the police,” she said.

The centre was founded in March 2018 as a service for the Black community to deal with anti-Black racism.

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Many of Goba’s clients are afraid to assert their rights during police interactions, concerned it will result in violence, she said.

“When that happens in the Black community, it’s met with the assumption that they are potentially violent, aggressive, and the police act on that basis in many cases.”

Following the deaths of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery in the U.S. and subsequent protests calling for justice and an end to anti-Black racism, including within policing, Goba says her organization has created a pamphlet to help Toronto protesters know their rights.

Demonstrations in Toronto were sparked after the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a Black and Indigenous woman who fell to her death from a balcony at the end of May following an interaction with police. The SIU is currently investigating this case.

The brochure Goba and her colleagues created informs protesters that they have the right to wear a mask and do not have to speak to police if they are approached by them.

The Black community generally does not trust the police to uphold their rights, she said.

Goba said her clients have dealt with incidents ranging from being shoved into the hoods of their cars to Black children being handcuffed in school to Black trans people alleging assault by police.

“It’s criminalization of behaviours that are not otherwise criminalized for other groups,” she said.

What needs to happen next

Goba’s other major concern is that police are involved in areas where they don’t have expertise, she said.

Global News reported last week about advocates calling for the defunding of police so other organizations can handle mental health and wellness checks to de-escalate those scenarios.

The intersection between race and mental health can impact decisions on use of force, as police may rely on stereotypes about Black people and mental illness when handling those calls, the OHRC reported in 2018.

Between 2013 and 2017, nearly 30 per cent of SIU use-of-force investigations involved people exhibiting mental health issues.

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The TPS sends a mobile crisis intervention team, made up of a trained officer and mental health nurse, to these calls. They only attend around 6,000 of these calls because they will not go if a weapon is involved, she said. There is also annual training for the force in de-escalation and communication techniques, said Gray.

In 2015, Andrew Loku, a Black man and father of five who was experiencing mental health issues, was shot and killed by Toronto police. According to the SIU, he was shot seconds after he was seen holding a hammer in the hallway of his building, where units were leased by the Canadian Mental Health Association.

A coroner’s inquest in 2017 ruled Loku’s death a homicide.

Activism to hold police accountable in cases like Loku’s has been happening for decades, said Goba.

“I hope that this is a turning point,” she said. “We’re focused so much on policing, and police violence… but this is against the backdrop of a pandemic where the Black community is also being harmed significantly by health issues because of systemic anti-Black racism.”

The damage being done by COVID-19 is connected to the systemic issues that the Black community faces, she said.

Global News previously reported that neighbourhoods with more Black residents in Toronto have more COVID-19 cases.

“They don’t exist in a vacuum. They exist in the context of white privilege and a failure by governments to acknowledge the reality of the existence of the Black community in the city, province and country,” she said.

⁠— With files from the Canadian Press

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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